As print sales continue to suffer in the era of smartphones, TheCity.ie’s Paul Caffrey reveals what it was like to endure a savage round of newsroom redundancies and examines the current state of the Irish newspaper industry
The newspaper business is in crisis and I’m living proof.
Last year was full of shocks for anyone working in newspapers, with 2019 characterised by one upsetting round of redundancies after another in the trade that was once king.
It was a long time coming. Sales and readership figures of printed papers have been in steady decline since 2007 as digital options — smartphones in particular — have developed more and more.
In the second half of 2018, sales of daily national papers in Ireland plummeted by 10%. The Sunday market fell by 9%. Behind the scenes, the executives trying to keep their ships afloat had to take out their balance sheets and work out how to make cuts. As usual, they went for payroll.
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In March 2019, Ireland’s biggest newspaper group, Independent News & Media — publishers of the Irish Independent, Sunday Independent and The Herald — sought 35 redundancies. This led to the departures of many of its most talented and high-profile journalists.
Just a few months beforehand, in was described by SIPTU as a “massive blow”, INM had also shut down its own printing plant in Citywest, Dublin, with the loss of 84 jobs.
Until April of last year, I had a good job covering the High Court for a national newspaper.
On Friday, March 1st, I’d been in the middle of covering the closing stages of a libel action taken by billionaire Denis O’Brien against the Business Post — a case that could have bankrupted that paper had he won — when I was informed that my own employer was looking to remove about 35 of us from our jobs.
While one newspaper was standing up for its very existence in court with a full defence against O’Brien’s action by respected journalists Tom Lyons and Ian Kehoe, the Irish Daily Mail was about to lay off a large chunk of its loyal staff.
I was in shock. My gut reaction was, how can we run a newspaper on that basis? What will become of my colleagues? And will I be staying? I loved working for them. But, with a verdict imminent in the O’Brien case, I had no choice but to get on with the job.
All the while, I was getting a flurry of texts from senior colleagues back at the newsroom, including one that assured us that our paper was not closing down. That statement in itself I found shocking, as my mind hadn’t yet contemplated any such eventuality.
Within 30 minutes or less, news of our “internal” strife was everywhere. RTÉ’s Industry Correspondent Ingrid Miley had been quick on the uptake and published it on the national broadcaster’s website for all to see.
The last thing you want when your own organisation is hit with a crisis like this is to have to discuss it with anyone outside of your number, unless you’ve known them a long time.
You just don’t want their commiserations or polite enquiries before you’ve had even 20 minutes to process it yourself – even if they work in the media.
And with O’Brien seemingly on the verge of yet another victory against a newspaper, it seemed that our industry was under attack from all sides.
However, in a stunning twist later that afternoon, the billionaire lost his case. The jury returned from its deliberations and found in favour of the Business Post. O’Brien had not been defamed, they decided.
The newspaper was vindicated for its journalism and for having dared to publish a story concerning the finances of a number of well-known businessmen including O’Brien.
It was a genuine victory for press freedom and a boost for all of us working in the media. It temporarily gave us all a lift and a cause for celebration.
Emotions running high in the pouring rain outside the Four Courts. Tom Lyons, the paper’s former business editor, told the media:
“We stood up to him, we fought for a full month, we stuck to our guns, we told the truth, did the right thing and thankfully the jury came down on our side.”
Ian Kehoe, the paper’s former editor, said at the time:
“This is about the right of every media organisation in this country to publish what’s genuinely in the public interest and of public importance.”
That night, there was a sense among us that, even if we were all about to lose our jobs, at least this much had been achieved. O’Brien’s case had been — in the words of the broadsheet newspaper’s lawyer Michael McDowell SC in his closing speech to the jury — “thrown out on its backside”.
Before long, I had to consider my own situation again. Eventually, after much soul-searching and many tears during various meetings with my employer and a few long chats in quiet corners with my colleagues, with a heavy heart, I decided to join the leavers.
I was one of more than 40 editorial staff who left the place by the end of April. Our publisher — DMG Media Ireland — had employed 156 staff in Dublin until last April’s exodus.
It was when I saw excellent journalists like our political editor Senan Molony — to name just one — being let go that I could clearly see that the number one priority for management was reducing the wage bill. There was genuinely no element of judging anyone by how well we did our jobs.
Even though this scenario was being echoed in newsrooms across the world, that makes it no easier to view it objectively when it hits your own workplace.
Leaving was a hugely difficult decision for me because I love newspapers and only ever wanted to work for one since I was 18. I felt at home there.
During the long process of negotiations about which of us might agree to take the bullet, falling newspaper sales and declining advertising revenue were constantly cited to us as the main reasons for the layoffs.
However, I felt the whole process was handled as sensitively as it could have been. I departed wishing those who remained from our fantastic team of exceptional journalists, editors and sub-editors well — including editor-in-chief Sebastian Hamilton and chief executive Paul Henderson, both of whom I’d enjoyed working for.
Certainly, if it’s a job you’re attached to and have done for a long time, redundancy is on a par with bereavement in terms of the devastating sense of loss it leaves you with for a long time afterwards. As this article from London’s Tavistock Institute notes, “Redundancy results in profound bereavement, not from the loss of others, but from the loss of self.” It’s also a comparison that’s been drawn extensively by academics and psychologists through the decades, as this 1987 study shows.
Over the past year, I’ve felt every inch of what these studies describe. Like the loss of a very close loved one, something I’m also painfully familiar with, it affects every part of your life. As to whether I’ll ever venture to take up permanent employment again, even if it’s offered, I’m still undecided.
Meanwhile, there was further drama in May 2019 when the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times Ireland shut down its print edition less than two years after it had launched.
Most journalists at the title were forced out of their jobs with redundancy pay that was condemned by the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for being “miserly”.
Many staff were reportedly furious to be told they wouldn’t be entitled to redundancy pay unless they’d worked for that company for more than two years.
Despite all this, about half a million newspapers are sold each day in Ireland, according to Irish Times Circulation Director Fran Walsh. He told TheCity.ie:
“People think print is dead…If you launched any product today into the market and went and said, ‘we can sell half a million of this product on a daily basis’, it would be a phenomenal business.”
However, back in the early Noughties, the Sunday Independent alone boasted having one million or more readers on its front page, week after week.
Despite all the upheaval since those glory days, newspapers remain an essential part of our daily life.
Without them, the Watergate scandal would never have been exposed by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their comprehensive, investigative exposé led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation in August 1974.
The painstaking investigative work of Woodward and Bernstein was dramatised in the 1976 film All The President’s Men.
Without newspapers, we’d never have learned the extent to which British MPs were on the take with their expenses claims from the Daily Telegraph in 2009. That newspaper made its own film, The Disk, about its findings.
Equally, the betting scandal involving three Pakistani cricketers, revealed by the now-defunct News Of The World in 2010, would never have been brought to light.
Newspapers also run important campaigns — such as the UK Daily Mirror’s opposition to the Iraq War in 2003, and closer to home, the Irish Daily Mail’s recent campaign to ban smartphones for under-16s.
According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism in the US (now part of the Pew Research Center), most original journalism is still produced by newspaper journalists.
Moreover, newspapers still largely set the broadcast and online news agenda. RTÉ’s Morning Ireland has two paper reviews each morning, while Sky News has two paper reviews each night and a more in-depth look at the day’s papers every morning.
WATCH: National Newspapers of Ireland video that explores why newspapers of all types are still important.
The global surge in redundancies also poses a clear threat to journalism itself.
With job security in the newspaper business now harder than ever to come by, many talented journalists I know have left the industry and secured jobs in public relations and communications roles instead, working for political parties, State bodies, charities and NGOs.
And when the poacher turns gamekeeper, surely the quality of the journalism on offer to the public suffers.
According to a 2019 report by the Federal Communications Commission in the US, mass redundancies in print newsrooms result in:
“…stories not written, scandals not exposed, government waste not discovered, health dangers not identified in time”.
In my view, the only solution for now is that good journalists keep striving to hold the rich, the powerful, the incompetent and the reckless to account with rigorously researched and verified original content.